1. The Introduction
By Kavita Kane, Author of Karna's Wife
"I am Shakuntala, King Dushyant," she announced. "And this," she pushed the 12-year-old boy standing next to her. "...is your son."
She saw the king's handsome face flush an ugly red. That same face she had fallen in love with once, that had betrayed her, and would do the same again, now. The flush said it all.
She turned to the boy. "And this, my son, is your father, the King of Hastinapur."
"I need no introduction, lady," said Dushyant curtly. "What do you want?"
"I want nothing. But you needed to be introduced to your son," she retorted. "The son I gave birth to after you left me at my father's ashram. Never to return. To remind you, I am that girl whom you married 13 years ago."
"How dare you, I am the King!"
"And I may not be your queen, but I am your wife," she replied, unfazed. "Who wants..," she saw him go pale. "Not your throne, your wealth, your kingdom," she added contemptuously. "I come for my son. Will you not ask why?"
Her tone was openly mocking. King Dushyant pursed his thin lips, silent.
"Why?" furiously demanded the Queen Mother.
"Because a man who does not have the courage or the honesty to accept his love as his wife would also be too weak to accept his child," observed Shakuntala, her soft voice, taunting. "I brought my son up on my own in my father's ashram..."
"And who is your father?" interrupted Dushyant, his eyes glinting maliciously.
"Rishi Kanva, who raised me. But I am the daughter of Menaka the apsara and Rishi Vishwamitra."
"The heavenly wh*re who seduced the silly sage! That's why you speak thus!"
"Stop," she commanded. "Such inelegant words do not suit a king. You have no right to insult my parents—or me," she continued, her voice toneless.
She paused, heat fanning her lovely face. "Son, let me introduce you again to your father—King Dushyant of Hastinapur who abandoned us; who refuses to acknowledge us in fear that we might usurp his crown and stain his status. But king, fear not, you have ruined your own reputation. Though it is our right, we do not desire your fame or your name, which is suspect. My son does not need your throne to become king. I have brought him up as a prince in exile, skilled in both wisdom and weapons. He shall be king by worth, not birth. He will carve out his own future. He shall be known as Bharat and you, King Dushyant, shall be known as his father. He shall rule the world without your name or your legacy..."
The boy looked at his mother and made himself a promise. He would be that king.
By Nirupama Subramanian, Author of Keep the Change
For the last 14 years, every second of my life has been hurtling towards this moment. Yet, I am unable to speak, to say the words I have been longing to say, to do anything but stare numbly ahead. For the last 14 years, I have had regular nightmares. I see Simi waiting on the dim platform at the old Delhi station, weeping hopelessly. In another one, she is surrounded by monsters, one of them pulls at her dupatta. In desperation, she steps onto the path of the approaching train. "This is because of you," she reproaches me before she is tossed up in the air like a rag doll. I had no idea what had happened to her since the night we did not run away together. We were young, drunk on love, oblivious to everything else; the differences in our castes, social status, the imminent wrath of our parents. She had just finished school, I had a year to go in college and we didn't have a single rupeebetween us.
I saw myself a hero of the movies, going to work at the forest, returning home to his woman every evening. She would welcome me at the door of our humble wooden hut, the smell of fresh dal mingling with the fragrance of jasmine in her hair. Instead, I succumbed to the bait of an expensive education at an American University that my father had dangled in front of me. I barely scraped through my studies. I went through a series of dull jobs, listless and disinterested. I had been with other women, brief tawdry affairs, that left me feeling more dissatisfied. I didn't even care when I was fired from my last job in Silicon Valley. "You are being self-destructive," my therapist had said, "You are punishing yourself to get rid of the guilt." He charged me $300 an hour to tell me what I already knew, but seeing a shrink had been one of the conditions my father had insisted on after I got out of rehab. Now, I was back in India, cleaning up, looking for work, hoping for some kind of redemption. "The Director will see you now," says the receptionist at Growmind Solutions. "Good morning. Please sit down," says the lady in front of me. "I'm just going through your resume." I know the voice, though the face is that of a stranger. "Simi?" I ask, still unbelieving. I feel my skin prickle, a filament of cold fire sears my throat. She stares at me, searchingly. "My God! It is you!" she exclaims. Words stick to the roof of my mouth. "It's been so long," she remarks. "I often wondered what had become of you. I was feeling a little bad but I guess everything turned out well. I hope you understood when you got the message." I shake my head slowly. "But I sent a message through the press boy in our colony," says the Director of Growmind Solutions, puzzled. "I had cleared the IIT entrance exam, with a very good rank. So, it didn't make any sense to run away to the hills. I wrote that in a note and gave him 20 rupees to take it to you so that you wouldn't be waiting unnecessarily at the station. And, I left for Kharagpur after a few days and got really busy with studies. Then MBA, the job, marriage, one thing after another..." she continues. I tug at my throat to loosen the knot of my tie. "How ridiculous we were," says the woman in front of me, with a bemused smile, her eyes briskly skimming the computer screen. "Anyway, we should get on with the interview. I have another meeting in 20 minutes. I notice that there is a gap of two years since your last job. What have you been doing since then?" "Please," I manage to croak. Can I have a glass of water?"
By Kiran Manral, Author of Once Upon a Crush
He had been planning this moment for months. It had to be perfect. He had never thought it would come to this, not at the moment he had first spotted her, across the room, at that boring party. She was unfazed by both his good looks and his wealth, and best of all, didn't bother about trying to get his number or give him hers. And, mid conversation, her face lit up like she had upturned it to watch a meteor of stars on spotting something, or someone, she then suddenly disappeared, and never returned to him. He didn't see her again that evening, but she stayed in his mind, like that little niggle of disquiet that constantly intrudes on one's thoughts. Days passed, he tracked her down from the subtle clues he had picked up from the conversation, and had landed unannounced at the cluttered digital media office she was working at. He took her out on dates, wooed her with flowers and jewellery, but she was barely present. Polite, interested, but distant. It drove him mad, this overt disinterest. And then it occurred to him, perhaps, she was holding out for an engagement ring. So it would be a proposal of marriage this evening, over dinner. He had planned everything. When the champagne arrived, he looked at her expectantly. She looked up at him, startled. "What is this?" she asked.
"What does it look like?" he replied. "A ring." He plucked it out of her hands, and asked, "Will you marry me?" Her eyes lit up in delight, but as he began sliding the ring, she pulled away. "I didn't say I would," she replied. His face crumpled into twisted disbelief. "But," she continued, "why do you want to marry me?" He was stumped. "Because I want to." "But do you love me?" she asked, trying to see a spark beyond the I, me, myself that would so grate on her last standing nerve every time they met. Perhaps he knew no better, she had told herself, he was so accustomed to being the focus of attention, he couldn't see beyond himself, had never learnt to do so. His eyes were pained, even tortured. Was this love, he wondered? "I think so," he replied. She smiled at him, and pressed his hand gently between hers. "I want to love you too. You tick all the boxes. My parents would be delighted. But I don't want to get married on an 'I think so'. Let's do this again when you can say with all your heart 'Of course I do'?" There was a long awkward silence.
She began to get up, he reached out and grabbed her hand. "Of course I do." His eyes, when he looked at her were pleading. No one had rejected him ever. "Well, then," she said, looking him straight in the eye. "Will you marry me?"
By Swati Kaushal, Author of Piece of Cake
There was a last minute snafu, Pratik explained on the phone. He couldn't make it for the IIM interview panel this year. Could Somya take his place? A whole day interviewing candidates! Somi cringed at the idea. But she owed Pratik. It was with a sense of déjà vu that she walked into the interview room Monday morning. The room was stuffy and poorly lit; behind the table sat Prof Sethi, notorious for giving everyone a B-minus in his class, and Prof Rononjoy Mukherjee, notorious for setting every female heart aflutter. "Prof Mukherjee," she murmured. "And Prof Sethi. So nice to see you both!" Prof Sethi grunted something incoherent, Prof Mukherjee told her she had no idea how delighted he was to see her. "Your TED Talk on following your dreams just blew me away. I've been using a couple of lines from it in my class. Hope you don't mind?"
Somi calmed her racing heart and told him she didn't mind at all. And he was quoting her in his class!
She felt his gaze on her as she took her place beside him at the table. The wedding ring he used to wear was missing, she noticed. The candidates were a smart bunch. How was she supposed to choose which ones would make it? "Tell me about the biggest challenge you've ever faced," Prof Sethi asked a young girl named Sunaina. She had been unable to name the landmark book by Thomas Piketty, and couldn't estimate the value of the global economy in the year 2050. "Learning to be a single mother," Sunaina replied. Somi looked up from her notes. "My biggest challenge has been to bring her into this world, and care for her, while pursuing my dream of doing an MBA." "And your husband?" "I'm not married." "So Tanvi's father...?" "...is not part of our lives." Prof Sethi shook his head after she left. "We've had married couples on campus, but an unwed mother!"
"Gutsy," Somi said.
"It shows a looseness of character," Prof Sethi huffed. "Only to those with a narrow mind," Ron shot back. 'I could kiss you,' Somi thought. "So I'll see you tomorrow?" Ron asked, as they walked out at the end of the day. "Why?" "You don't want to leave those poor Mumbai candidates to Sethi's mercy, do you?"
He was joking. Or was he? Something had changed between them. "You know how we've been asking candidates about their challenges? Mine was accepting that my marriage is over...and recognising that I need to move on." He looked tired Somi thought. "What about you?" he asked. "Learning to take a chance." "It's not easy," he agreed. "But you know that saying, you never know what might happen."' "Mark Zuckerberg?" "Somya Mathur. In a certain TED talk I think I've fallen in love with you." He smiled at her in the darkness, she could hear her heart pounding. "Well in that case," she said, and closed the distance between them.